GAVAGAI – movie review

GAVAGAI

Shadow Distribution
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Rob Tregenza
Screenwriter:  Kirk Kjeldsen, Rob Tregenza
Cast: Andreas Lust, Mikkel Gaup, Anni-Kristiina Juuso, Joakim Nango, Kim Robin Svartdal
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/3/18
Opens: August 3, 2018 in NY.  August 10, 2018 in L.A.
Gavagai
“Gavagai” is an invented word in an imagined language that is subject to different interpretations. The term comes from the book “Word and Object” from W.V.O. Quine—a major philosopher whose Wikipedia article challenges us to understand his point of view.
“Gavagai” the film is from an American director, Rob Tregenza, using an Austrian actor, Andreas Lust as the principal character, a Finnish girl in the role of a woman being courted, and a Norwegian, Mikkel Gaup, who serves as a safari guide to Norway’s elk country.  Written by the director with co-writer Kirk Kjeldsen, the film adds class in the form of frequent quotes from the poetry of Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970).  The spare dialogue is mostly English though the tour guide speaks to his countrymen in Norwegian.

This is a most unusual film, one that is boldly original and exceptionally lyrical, rejected by several film festivals including those in Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto and London perhaps because it is too highbrow even for the judges.  Yet it is in no way a complex puzzle of the sort that makes people wonder, such as “Last Year at Marienbad” and “Veronique,” but is for the patient viewer who  revels in the type of cinema that penetrates life as shown by the contrasting personalities of a grief-stricken foreign tourist and his earthbound guide.

This is a road-and-buddy movie, the buddy part coming alive during the concluding moments when the two travelers for the first time laugh out loud at a mishap in the Mercedes.  The German businessman who is not named (Andreas Lust) carries an urn with the ashes of his recently departed wife, a woman who appears as an apparition as though stalking her ex-lover.  He is on the way to Vinje, Norway, the home of the poet Tarjei Vesaas with the elite project: to translate the poet’s works into Chinese. But he does not know how to drive.  In a village in the Telemark region of Norway, he hires a guide who advertises elk safari tours, offering 3000 kronas ($367) each way if he would take the grieving fellow to a remote destination unreachable by other means.  For most of the trip the traveler keeps to himself, even refusing the invitation to share the front seat with the guide.  In one scene, the guide takes a break to try to reconcile himself with an angry girlfriend (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), bringing her flowers but achieving nothing.

Doubling as cinematographer, Rob Tregenza unfolds the beauty of Norwegian heartland, hilly and green, indicating how few people live in the small towns that each house is remote from its nearest neighbor’s.  Mari (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), who is being courted, hangs her wash outside barely paying attention to the entreaties of her lover, with whom she has obviously had an argument.

Tregenza’s most notable previous feature, “Talking to Strangers,” found the American developing nine incidents in the same non-jazzy style of his current offering, which will appeal to an audience that does not require either bursts of melodrama or whodunit mystery.  The rewards are there for such people, though you would not expect this to open in many areas outside New York (August 3, 2018) and Los Angeles (August 10, 2018).

Tarjei Vesaas would be thrilled by the film.  His poems deal with the big issues: death, guilt, angst, intractable grief, all artfully embedded here.  Among his quotes, one that would apply beautifully to this film is: “Anyone who absolutely has to understand everything he sees misses a lot.”

Unrated.  90 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY – movie review

WHAT WILL PEOPLE SAY (Hva vil folk si)

KINO LORBER
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Iram Haq
Screenwriter:  Iram Haq
Cast:  Maria Mozhdah, Adil Hussain, Rohit Saraf, Ali Arfan, Sheeba Chaddha, Lalit Parimoo, Ekavali Khanna
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/26/18
Opens: July 13, 2018

It’s lucky that President Trump does not read movie subtitles or he’d be sure to boot up “What Will People Say” into his propaganda machine.  With the backing of our reactionary Supreme Court, or at least 0.56% of it, he has succeeded in justifying his travel ban on Muslims in several countries.  So what would be better than to show what it’s like to try to assimilate people of a different culture from our mainstream?  Not too promising according to writer-director Iram Haq, a woman who is in her métier, having previously made the film “I Am Yours,” about a Norwegian Pakistani woman looking for love in the wrong places.

“What Will People Say,” or “Hva vil folk si” in the original Norwegian, is a thoroughly absorbing tale of Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) a sixteen-year-old woman of Pakistani descent living in Norway, perhaps since birth. Her father Mirza (Adil Hussain), who claims to live for his daughter who he hopes will become a doctor, is now doing factory work “which Norwegians do not want to do.”  In school Nisha has assimilated with white Norwegian friends, especially Daniel (Isak Lie Harr), a redheaded boy who has his sights on her.  One night, she allowed him to climb through her window doing some kissing, though when her father discovered the two together, he assumed that they had sex and gave the boy a beating while insisting that Nisha marry the lad (unusual, isn’t it, that he’s willing to allow a cross-cultural matchup so that her neighbors won’t talk?)

Nisha pushes the conflict up a notch by signing into a safe house, courtesy of a friendly social worker, but then misses her family, goes back to them, only to be kidnapped by Mirza forcing her to return to Pakistan with him and to put her up with his extended family there.  She is treated poorly by her aunt (Sheeba Chaddha) and uncle (Lalit Parimoo), is later picked up by her father whose plans for her are not paternal especially when hearing that she was caught kissing her cousin Amir (Rohit Saraf) and humiliated by three rogue cops who make her strip and threaten to put her photo on the ‘net.

Yes, President Trump, there is a wide gulf between the culture of a place like Norway (Trump likes!) and Pakistan.  And our President can point out that Muslims might put a great burden on social workers and teachers in the U.S. when cultural gaps turn bloody.  Still, Nisha dad is not an altogether bad guy, but his fear of neighbors’ talking turns him into a tyrant—though one wonders why the fight with his daughter need be made public, specifically his catching Nisha with a guy in her room.

Lots of comedies have been made about cultural differences between Christian residents and Muslim immigrants, but this is no “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  Do not expect a Hollywood ending for this remarkable indie, filmed in Norway and India with English subtitles for Norwegian and Urdu.  This is serious stuff, an eye opener even for those of us who are already aware of points of friction between immigrant communities and natives, wherein in this case the daughter could be called a Norwegian native out of step with her extended family.  Top notch acting come from the ensemble with gorgeous photography of mountains in India, contrasted with the benign look of a village outside Oslo.  Special kudos for Maria Mozhdah in her stunning freshman role in a feature film which, by the way, is autobiographical (the director was really kidnapped back when!)

Unrated.  106 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

THE 12th MAN – movie review

THE 12TH MAN    (Den 12. mann)

IFC Midnight
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Harald Zwart
Screenwriter:  Alex Boe
Cast:  Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Marie Blokus, Mads Sjogard Pettersen, Martin Kiefer
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/24/18
Opens: May 4, 2018

When you see a title like this one you can’t be blamed if you think it’s about the one guy who leaves a jury hanging, the only not guilty vote in the dozen.  This is a story about an even more unusual fellow, though, a man who risked far more than a member of any jury would and whose long days of suffering would seem almost unprecedented even in the midst of a global war.  In fact it’s difficult to believe that the story is true, and yet I’ve heard at least one moviegoer who is usually in the know mention that the true facts are even more unbelievable.  Again: life is stranger than fiction.

Harald Zwart, the Dutch-born director, is known here in the U.S. for contributing such commercial works as “Pink Panther 2” and “The Karate Kid.”  This time he casts his net on a bigger catch, one with more tension than can be found in those two previous movies and his “Agent Cody Banks” put together.  The dialogue is in German except for an opening scene in Scotland, giving the British actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers a workout as he must chuck his native English (or, if you prefer his Irish) to take on the role of a high-ranking officer in the Nazi war machine.  If that’s unusual, what would you make of a Norwegian hip-hop performer, Thomas Gullestad, in the role of a commando, taking part in a planned sabotage of German facilities in his native Norway?

Though the mission fails, Jan Baalsrud (Thoams Gullestad) is given the hero treatment for his tenacity in using non-traditional methods to be the only person in the mission to escape, while the others are captured and executed.  You might think he would find his hapless friends lucky to be shot,  Jan suffering a deadly gunshot wound in his toe,  making his way across Northern Norway, snow-covered with freezing water in May.  In hot pursuit we find Obersturmbanfuhrer Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a Nazi who brags that nobody ever escaped under his watch.  He tracks Jan like Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert, refusing to give up while diverting his unit by vehicle across the fjords.  Were it not for ordinary Norwegians who risked death by helping the man get away, he would not have come within a few miles of Norway’s border with neutral Sweden, marked in the snow by a simple barbed-wire fence though surveilled by a Nazi guard post.

The only guts the movie audience needs is a willingness to watch Jan empty half a bottle of whiskey before cutting off his gangrene-infested toe.  We cheer for the help he receives, among others from Marius (Mads Sjogard Petterson) who together with his sister Gudrun (Marie Blokhus) risk execution if their underground activity were uncovered.  The most amusing scene finds Jan on skiis, given to him by a helpful Norwegian bumping right into Kurt Stage, even falling on his butt, only to have Stage come up with “I thought Norwegians knew how to ski.”  How a man who rose in the ranks of the Nazi party could not have considered this collision almost a sure indication that Jan is the man he seeks is beyond me.

The tension continues throughout, though the audience, if familiar with the true account of the chase in 1943 would know the outcome.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes the perfect villain, obsessed with his inability to capture a single, heavily wounded man.  Special credit for the quartet in the make-up department and for Geir Hartley Andreassen behind the lens, especially with the vista of the Northern Lights.  One item of curiosity.  This was filmed in Troms, supposedly in May 1943, in the Northern part of Norway where the midnight sun begins in June, yet we have many scenes in pitch darkness.  Why so?

In German with sharp, yellow subtitles taking the place of the pallid white subtitles so prevalent in European cinema.

Unrated.  131 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+